Chamkila’s bawdy legacy

As a non-Punjabi who lived in Punjab for more than a decade (2005-16) and learnt the language reasonably well, my own discovery of Chamkila happened much after he had passed.
Last Updated : 19 April 2024, 23:56 IST
Last Updated : 19 April 2024, 23:56 IST

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Close to four decades after his passing, Amar Singh Chamkila is back in headlines, courtesy a Bollywood film that narrates the story of his life and his time in the spotlight. In an all-too-brief life (he along with his wife and co-singer, Amarjot was gunned down in 1988 at the age of 27) and a career that lasted less than a decade, Chamkila managed to win a great deal of popularity and notoriety. 

As a non-Punjabi who lived in Punjab for more than a decade (2005-16) and learnt the language reasonably well, my own discovery of Chamkila happened much after he had passed. By then I could access a host of opinions on his work and analysis besides. My entry into Chamkila’s oeuvre was therefore not organic but mediated. 

Given that much of the opinion on Chamkila was not complimentary, my understanding of Chamkila did not come easy. It was easy enough to dismiss his songs as vulgar and crass. In ‘Pehle lalkaara’ (The first shout), for instance, the glorification of alcohol and stalking is jarring. In ‘Mere jee karda’ (I desire…), the woman openly spoke of burning, uncontrollable desire which only a man could fulfil. ‘Bapu saada gum ho gaya’ (My father’s missing) goes where even casual conversations wouldn’t go — it speaks of an illicit affair between the father of the groom and the mother of the bride. There are other songs that chronicle flirtations between a man and his sister-in-law (saali in Punjabi) and a woman and her brother-in-law (devar/deor in Punjabi). 

But after I had spent a few years in Punjab and immersed myself in its contradictions, I felt better equipped to come to a more nuanced understanding of the Chamkila phenomenon. It was no secret that his songs found favour with a wide cross-section of society. They sang along with him when he performed, bought his cassettes and records, but
did not speak up for him when the ‘guardians of culture’ came forward to censure him. 

What could possibly explain this pussy-footedness? 

Could Chamkila’s subaltern caste background and humble working class origins have something to do with this? In the ’80s when Chamkila flourished, Punjab was yet to see Dalit assertion. It still believed in the myth that the influence of Sikhism had diluted caste. There was some truth therefore to the fact that Chamkila was ‘sacrificed’ in part due to his caste. A dominant caste performer would have been ‘protected’ more, in all likelihood.

The ’80s were also a time of deep churn in Punjabi society when the
Khalistani separatist movement had cast a long, dark shadow on the state. The movement which in its self-definition was based on noble Sikh ideals could not come to terms with a character like Chamkila who spoke about the murkier aspects of society. It had to cut him down. 

There was some local precedent to the sentiments he aired through his songs. For long, songs with bawdy lyrics had been sung in women-only spaces throughout Punjabi society. They were a well-kept secret which served as a mechanism to let off steam given the demands that joint families and rural life made on women. 

Chamkila himself maintained he was merely a chronicler and made no moral judgements. Could he then be included in the ambit of ‘letting off steam’? Yes and no. 

Clearly, the popularity of his music meant that Punjabi society did find some sort of release and escape for their pent-up emotions and tensions in his work. But then to mainstream the lustful male gaze under the guise of ‘chronicling’ could not be entirely justified on this account. And to do that in a society where the alpha male was already a dominant stereotype meant that life for women in public spaces became that much more difficult to negotiate.  

Chamkila was like a meteor. He soared… briefly. Had he lived, would his popularity have lasted? Likely not. Eventually, it would not have been sufficient for society to merely escape the realities. There would have been a reckoning. And that might have perhaps nixed him anyway. In his death, he perhaps remains more alive than he would have otherwise.  

(The author ran a rural school in Bathinda, Punjab)

Published 19 April 2024, 23:56 IST

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